“Calgary afforded me a lot of opportunity, and I’m super fortunate that it’s been so supportive as a community for my business; people are so kind here,” says Nicole Gomes, Top Chef Canada contestant, and proprietor of Nicole Gourmet and Cluck ‘n’ Cleaver.
Born in Richmond, B.C., Gomes always knew she wanted to cook, and started at a very young age.
“Food is such a big part of the culture for the Portuguese and the Chinese,” she says of her family background. “My dad was a chef, and he owned a food distribution company, so food was always around us.”
She cooked for friends through high school, and at 14 years old worked at KFC while helping in her mom’s travel agency, but instead of taking over the family business as expected, she took a short course at Dubrulle, a small Vancouver culinary school.
“It wasn’t my thing to be in an office every day, even though I value every moment of that as I learnt good administration skills, which a lot of chefs don’t have,” she says.
An apprenticeship in Paris followed, before returning to Canada to work from the ground up at an opening Italian restaurant. Gomes wanted to work at either Lumiere or West, but was unsuccessful, so she sold everything and went to Australia, where she worked at Darling Harbour Convention Centre, as well as at a naval base and a Thai restaurant in Sydney.
“My goal from cooking was to own my own business, so I knew I had to diversify and not be limited to one thing,” she says. ”I did everything, and I think that really helped my skill set.”
When she returned, Gomes did work at West, and then staged at Lumiere, but when her partner moved to Calgary for work, she joined him. She staged at Catch to see if she liked it and after a few days, knew this was for her.
“I started in a really low position and I was okay with that. I think working your way up is good, it makes you a stronger player,” she says.
A dream job as executive chef at Mercato followed; it was just a 26-seat restaurant at the time, but became a lot bigger when they realized Gomes could cook Italian.
“I gave a year’s notice as I wanted to do my own thing,” Gomes says. “I enrolled in business school and started Nicole Gourmet just on the web. It grew because clients from Mercato started calling.”
Chicken has always been Gomes’ favourite food, and with her sister, she started Cluck ‘n’ Cleaver last year. They’d both taken business planning courses, and wrote a 60-page business plan with financials.
“We’ve hit pretty much the nail on the head,” she laughs.
So what bottle is Gomes saving for a special occasion?
“I’m saving Terresole Reserva Brunellos, and have been doing for many years,” the chef says.
In 2011, the year before she applied for Top Chef Canada, Gomes wanted to go to Tuscany. A close friend suggested she rented the guesthouse at Terrasole vineyards, and with her sister and a couple of friends, they stayed for 10 days.
“We cooked and went to markets, we took a car and drove round the area,” she says. “Montalcino is a really lovely place if you can stay put in Italy in just one place,” she adds.
And when does Gomes plan to open her bottle?
Gomes is going to be 40 this year. “Nearly all my friends are turning 40 this year so maybe I should take this bottle back to Vancouver,” she muses. “I like spontaneity, so the planning part doesn’t matter but I know I have that little 80-bottle cellar downstairs. People who appreciate it mean a lot.”